Speaker 1: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.
David Norville: What kind of school does your child go to?
Speaker 3: My daughter goes to a charter school.
Speaker 4: I would love to send them to public school.
Speaker 3: I want a better school, better teachers, the type of school that I don't have to pay $25 for each kid to play a sport in school. I guess I want her to go somewhere probably not even in the neighborhood.
Speaker 4: That forces us to make a decision of where we live and what we do, and it's that vicious cycle. People moving out of the city to find better schools and then the schools don't get the funding that they need.
David Norville: Does it matter to you whether or not public education is available?
Speaker 5: Absolutely. It matters very much so.
Speaker 6: I went to a public school, and I had a very good experience of loving, caring teachers, students, and it doesn't matter. I think people should have options, period. Let them choose where they want to go, what they want to do, and how they want to do it. It's their life. Yes, let's get it.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Welcome to the show. Shout out to New England Public Media joining us for the first time this week. Glad to have you in the community. Cara Fitzpatrick has covered education for two decades. She won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2016 for a series called Failure Factories, which was an investigation that traced the rapid decline of five elementary schools in one Florida county. Now, in a new book, Cara Fitzpatrick focuses on education at the national level and tells the story of a six-decade-long movement that has picked away at the very idea of public education in the United States.
The book is called The Death of Public Schools: How Conservatives Won The War Over Education in America. Note that the subhead is in the past tense because Cara makes a bold argument that public education isn't just ending, it's practically over in many communities across the country. She joins me this week to walk us through that argument and through the history she chronicles in her book. Cara, welcome to the show.
Cara Fitzpatrick: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: Let's start with the term public education itself because the movement you described would challenge the premise that they've threatened public education. How do they define public education?
Cara Fitzpatrick: Well, our country has defined public education for more than 100 years as a public school being secular, tuition-free, and generally open to all. There's different ways that schools will define their admissions, but generally open to all.
Kai Wright: How does this movement define public education?
Cara Fitzpatrick: There's been this effort largely by conservatives in the school choice movement to broaden that idea and to say that really any education being paid for with tax dollars is in effect public education. They would say if you're using a school voucher, which is tax dollars, to pay for a private religious education, that that in itself is also public education.
Kai Wright: Anything with public money, that's public. We'll talk in great detail about this, but in the broadest sweep of terms, why does that make a difference to you? Why are those different ideas?
Kai Wright: Well, I want to be clear. I'm a journalist, not an advocate. I'm not saying that the school choice movement is inherently bad. It's a complicated, nuanced thing. I think it's an important thing to chronicle and to understand this shift toward putting more and more tax dollars into private education options that are rather different from how we have traditionally understood public education in this country.
Kai Wright: That it's a significant shift. Well, we'll get into the detail about why that's a significant shift, but it's a significant shift in how we've thought about it over the years. You've covered Florida schools closely. Ron DeSantis has built much of his national profile fighting culture wars through school curriculum, but he's also worked hard to redefine public education in this way more broadly. What has his role been in this? How so and how do these culture war battles relate to that effort?
Cara Fitzpatrick: Well, Ron DeSantis has been one of the Republican governors who's been talking a lot about this idea and in fact has said something quite similar, that the idea of anything that is being paid for with tax dollars is public education. He said that, and that idea has been around for a while. What DeSantis has done in Florida is really to use these culture war issues to attack public schools in a way and to argue then that everyone should have this choice to go to other places.
To have vouchers, to have education savings accounts. To be able to choose any type of education, really, that reflects their own values. It's something that he has really made part of his platform, but it's also something that he's built on in Florida. Florida has had school choice for a couple of decades. It's not just DeSantis who has done that, but he really has picked up the momentum on that.
Kai Wright: I guess what I want to get at with this is the news is always so much about these juicy culture war fights, which are deeply important. I'm taking from your reporting that there's something below that as well, though. There's something more fundamental than not just the argument over a curriculum, but then the argument over curriculum. There's a fundamental thing that's shifting in the conversation that he's trying to push.
Cara Fitzpatrick: I think to some extent DeSantis is really using those issues politically. It's not necessarily that the culture wars are something that he cares deeply about. I think it's a strategy, essentially, that's being used by a lot of Republicans. It's actually been outlined fairly transparently by some school choice advocates. Christopher Rufo, who's a well-known conservative activist, said in a speech a year or so ago that to have universal school choice that you had to have universal public school distrust.
It's essentially a strategy to win legislatively, to build on these school choice programs by sowing a certain amount of suspicion in the public education system.
Kai Wright: Ironically, if you can change the culture conversation about schools, you can change the budgeting conversation about schools, perhaps.
Cara Fitzpatrick: Yes. I think all of this really comes back to if you are giving money to parents for any educational option, there's only so many students out there, and that's going to send funds in different directions. I think we've seen that in Florida. The latest move from DeSantis has been to open up school vouchers, education savings accounts to all kids regardless of income. Every kid in the state is eligible, and that's a push that we've seen in other places as well.
Kai Wright: You make the case, as I said in the book, that the Republicans and conservatives who want to see this definition change have already won the war over education. This is a past-tense thing. What marked the shift for you?
Cara Fitzpatrick: This is an argument that is definitely upsetting some people. I'm definitely getting some feedback that it's not over yet. That people are still fighting these battles. For me, I think what I was reflecting on was looking at 60, 70 years of history and how far the school choice movement has already pushed this definition of public education, how many victories they've had. We have more than half the states in the country now that have these programs.
There's been a pretty large explosion of school choice legislation in just the last couple of years with the pandemic. Then also looking at the legal history behind this and all of the court victories that have been won that really have opened the door to these programs and with the Supreme Court saying that this is okay, this is an okay use of tax dollars.
Kai Wright: What are the consequences of that? What's the difference in the end?
Cara Fitzpatrick: I think what we've started to see already is that you have red states and blue states with dramatically different education programs. I grew up in Washington State in a conservative corner of Washington State, but the state is a blue state, and it has almost no choice. It still has a pretty traditionally understood public education system. It has some charter schools, even that was a battle. Then I moved to Florida and I cover education there for a long time.
It has this huge amount of choice. It has charter schools and it has these different private school choice programs. It's a radical change between just those two states. You're already talking about having a system where I can move to one state and have an extremely different-- this idea of public education system than I do in another. In Florida and in some of these red states, it's now entirely possible to have your child have their entire education paid for with tax dollars, but not actually go to a traditional public school.
Kai Wright: That's the big idea of the difference, but to parents, to students who feel like they are stuck in schools that are not working, schools like those elementary schools you investigated in Florida, it's all fine and good to talk about these big ideas around public school, but-- We'll get into this after our break in more detail in some of the specific places you reported, but for families and students just trying to make it through K-12 and get a good education, why should they care that there's a different school system in Florida versus in Seattle?
Cara Fitzpatrick: I think it's one of the things that I grapple with a lot is this tension between what's right for an individual family versus this systemic issue. I think that one of the things I really reflected on when I was reporting those series of stories in Florida is that our team of reporters followed families and interviewed families about their school options because many of them were trying to flee those traditional public schools that were really under-resourced and under-performing and had some pretty serious issues. Sometimes they went and found a better option, and sometimes they tried things that didn't actually work much better.
They tried charter school, then they tried private school with a voucher. That was one of the things that I really was trying to think about was, what do you do if you're one of those families? Because if you try to change a school, by the time you really make much headway on that, your child's going to be graduating. If your kid's not learning to read now, it's an urgent problem now. I think that's one of the powerful arguments for the school choice movement.
I think you also have to grapple with this bigger idea, then, of what does that mean for the system as a whole because those schools in Florida now have improved from when we reported on them. One of the ways that that happened is that the school district put a lot more money in there, and they tried to STEM teacher turnover. They did things to try to improve those schools and so if everyone flees, and that is the solution, then ultimately what happens to those schools?
Kai Wright: We need to take a break. I'm talking with Cara Fitzpatrick, author of the new book The Death of Public School. We can take your calls as well as your text messages now at 844-745-TALK. We can take any questions for Cara Fitzpatrick about the state of public education in the US. Also, if you decided not to send your child to a public school, or if you chose private school for yourself, what pushed you to make that decision? I'd like to hear how you thought about it. Coming up, we'll dig into the history of vouchers. Stay with us.
Kousha: Hey, everyone, this is Kousha. I'm a producer. I want to remind you that if you have questions or comments about what you're listening to, we at the show would love to hear from you. Here's how. First, you can email us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Second, you can send us a voice message. Just go to notesfromamerica.org and click on the green button a little bit down the page that says start recording. Finally, you can message us on Twitter and Instagram. The handle is @noteswithkai. However you want to reach us, we'd love to hear from you and maybe use your message on the show. All right. Thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright, and I am talking with Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter Cara Fitzpatrick about her new book, The Death of Public School. We can take your calls and we can take your text messages now as well if you have a question for Cara about the state of public education in the US. Cara, vouchers are a driving force in the history you describe. Where did the idea for school vouchers start?
Cara Fitzpatrick: There's not really one place that you can pinpoint. I decided to start the book in 1950 because, in that period of time, you had three different ideas for vouchers. You had Milton Friedman, an economist, making an economic argument for school vouchers. You had Virgil Blum, who was a priest who was making an argument that school vouchers really should be used for religious education to give religious families that option. Then you also had segregationists in the South who were coming up with school voucher programs to get around desegregation in the years leading up to and after Brown v. Board of Education.
Kai Wright: Just say more about that. The point is that this was an effort to say, okay, if we have to integrate schools, we need new options. Is that right?
Cara Fitzpatrick: Yes. It's interesting because segregationists were doing a lot of things to try to thwart Brown v. Board, but one of the things that they came up with, and it was actually considered almost a moderate choice because they also were closing down schools altogether. One of the things they came up with was this idea of the school voucher was an escape valve that families who really could not or would not send their child to a desegregated public school could use a voucher to then go to an all-white private school.
Kai Wright: There's that, I'm going to call it nefarious intent. There's Milton Friedman talking about economics. There's Virgil Blum, I think you said, talking about religion. Did everybody understand that it was going to work the same way? What was the idea about how this was going to work?
Cara Fitzpatrick: The mechanism was pretty similar, actually. The idea was that the government will give a family a certain amount of money, and then they can use that to pay for private school tuition. The idea was essentially the same. It was just the motivations behind it that were fairly different.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Vanessa in Chicago, who I believe is a teacher. Vanessa, welcome to the show.
Kai Wright: Hi, Vanessa. Do you have a question for Cara?
Vanessa: I don't have a question. I have a comment about what she's talking about, which is there's a controversy right now with our union, Chicago Teacher Union, that our president who has always defended public education took her kid out and put him in a private Catholic school. Right now, that's our controversy that you said that you defended that, that you didn't want to defund our schools or keep our public schools as choices. Now that's a controversy, so it's just interesting. I understand there's a lot of issues in certain schools in Chicago, the inequity, depending on your zip code. That's a controversy right now. It just hit the nail on the head with the topic.
Kai Wright: Cara, go ahead.
Cara Fitzpatrick: It's interesting because I think, I don't want to say we see that a lot, but you do actually see it, this sort of tension between someone advocating for public education and then the choices they make with their own family. You see that all the time and so it's interesting that it's happening there.
Kai Wright: It gets us back to what we were talking about before the break, though. It's one thing to talk about systemic questions in big picture, but if you have an education challenge as a student or as a parent, it is a right now challenge.
Cara Fitzpatrick: Yes. I think that's a very real thing that parents have to deal with in the moment. That school might not work for their own child for a variety of reasons and that's a tough thing. I think one of the things though that you want to push back on a little bit is also the idea that there's something inherently better about private schools because there's often that notion. You'll talk to families where they're interested in their child going to particular private schools, but maybe they haven't actually even explored the public options. That's something I think that also has to be part of the conversation.
Kai Wright: Where do you think that idea comes from?
Cara Fitzpatrick: That private schools are inherently better?
Kai Wright: Yes.
Cara Fitzpatrick: I think that's been around for a really long time. Actually, it showed up in some of the research I did where it was this assumption when some of these programs started that they were giving disadvantaged children a way out of low-performing public schools and that private school must be better. That actually hasn't really ended up being the case with a lot of the research on school vouchers, that really hasn't panned out, but I think there is just this idea out there that private schools are better and perhaps that they're better resourced or perhaps they have fewer behavior challenges. That floats around in the air a little bit when you talk to parents.
Kai Wright: One question we are getting a couple of text messages about is special education. I think this might touch on the private versus public and whether something is inherently better. In public schools, this is the idea we're hearing from listeners, that accessibility is challenging and it may be easier to find the accessibility needs you have for your child who needs special education in private school. Is there any truth to that?
Cara Fitzpatrick: It's an interesting comment because there are voucher programs that are actually designed for students with disabilities. One of the things that you lose when you do that is you lose your rights as a parent. You lose what's guaranteed to you in federal law. There's a little bit of risk in that. I think you do see families who are not finding a good fit, and that's a really challenging issue. The New York City public school system actually pays quite a bit of money to families who are opting to go private and have essentially said, this isn't working for us, and then proven that it's not working for us.
There is a little risk in that because you are not guaranteed the same rights and private schools don't have to accept you, and they don't have to provide the same services that perhaps the public school was providing or has to provide.
Kai Wright: The caller mentioned Chicago earlier. I want to talk about another Midwestern city that you report on at length, Milwaukee, which is called the birthplace of education freedom by some of the leading voices in the school choice movement, people like former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for instance. This is a city where 40% of the population is Black. It is considered, again, the birthplace of education freedom. How did a movement led by, as I understand it, conservatives and Republicans make school choice and vouchers appeal to Black communities in Milwaukee?
Cara Fitzpatrick: It's really a fascinating story, and part of the reason I was drawn to it when I was writing the book is that the Milwaukee public school system had some of the troubles that are common with urban school systems. There was a legislator, a Democratic Black legislator named Polly Williams, who was deeply interested in education and had done just a number of different proposals trying to address what she saw as some of the problems in the Milwaukee public school system, particularly pertaining to Black students. One of them was actually, she had a proposal to create an all-Black school district in the heart of Milwaukee.
That was a hugely controversial proposal, but just a number of different things, and then none of it went anywhere. She became a little disillusioned with her own party, with Democrats who weren't backing her up. She came around to the idea of school vouchers as something that could empower low-income Black and Latino students to go to better private options that actually did exist in Milwaukee at the time. They had independent schools that were very well regarded. She teamed up with the Republican governor at the time, Tommy Thompson, who was actually a political opponent of hers often, who was a white man, who came from a rural part of the state. They just had very, very little in common.
Kai Wright: This was? Just give us a timestamp, sorry, on this.
Cara Fitzpatrick: 1990 is when it happened. They teamed up, and they ended up actually passing a small experimental school voucher program for just the city of Milwaukee.
Kai Wright: What was the local reaction? Particularly the Black community there, respond to it?
Cara Fitzpatrick: It's interesting because in Milwaukee there was a fair amount of grassroots support for it, particularly from the Black community. I think because Milwaukee had this longstanding history of having some independent, secular, private schools that were very well regarded and were primarily used by Black and Latino families, that gave them a base of support to really push the idea forward. It was fiercely opposed by teachers' unions, by the school district, but it had this core of support from Black families in Milwaukee, and that really helped pass the program.
Kai Wright: There's a broader history here that you alluded to earlier that I think you're keen for people to understand, that we have to think about the way a lot of Midwestern communities were changing in the post-war years and the way schools changed in the post-war years. As the backdrop to that story, can you explain what that history is and why that's important to this, to understand this?
Cara Fitzpatrick: Yes, I think what was going on is that there was a fair amount of concern in the Black community in Milwaukee about how the public school system was treating Black students. Polly Williams actually was opposed to integration policies. There were some other Black advocates of school choice who were opposed to integration policies because they really felt like it wasn't benefiting the academic achievement of Black students. The burden of busing the kids was largely on Black families. You already had this history in the school district where they had to fight a lawsuit for over-segregated and under-resourced schools.
There was a big push to try to get more information about how Black students were actually doing because this was in the years before there was a lot of testing, standardized testing and accountability policies. There was a little bit of a question mark as to how Black students were really doing. One of the school choice advocates, Howard Fuller, pushed hard to get some test data and when it finally did come out, and they had some data to look at, it wasn't actually very good. The Black students were not doing particularly well in the Milwaukee public school system, and that fueled things.
Kai Wright: Ultimately, what did happen with this program? How do I put this? Was it a success? Can we look at Milwaukee public schools now, and say, okay, great. Particularly from the perspective of Black students, we got what we were looking for.
Cara Fitzpatrick: The program still exists, and all of the programs in Wisconsin now, because there's more than one, have grown. What you have in Milwaukee is this three-tiered system where you have the traditional public schools, which they've lost enrollment for years and years, and then you have a certain amount of students in charter schools, and then you have a pretty large, thriving voucher tier. It hasn't actually driven a ton of improvement in the public school system, which was one of the arguments that it would not only help individual Black students but that the competition would drive the public schools to improve. That hasn't really occurred.
The Milwaukee program has a fair amount of research behind it. Not all programs do, but the research behind it really hasn't shown that the test scores for students are much different than in the traditional public schools. There's a little bit more parental satisfaction with being able to choose, but actual academic outcomes really haven't been that different.
Kai Wright: Let's hear from Jack in Jersey City. Jack, welcome to the show.
Jack: Thank you very much. I want to speak to the use of the word systemic because I hear everyone talk about a systemic problem instead of using the word societal. I think that the language we use affects how we think about the problem with the education system, with many systems. I don't want to compare it to how a fast-food restaurant creates a system to churn out burgers. I think that if we looked at it as a societal issue, people could become invested in it, even if their children weren't going to benefit directly because we all have to interact with the person that comes out of the school eventually.
Ideally, I hope we all want a society in which people are educated to be a part of things and understand the reason why you don't commit crimes or why it's worth being kind to people or working hard. I feel that the American education has really lost a lot of that. We're the evidence because we're talking about it like a systemic. These are children, and we're using them as political ping pongs, both sides. Everyone wants to do good, and everyone's doing the same thing, in my opinion.
Kai Wright: Jack, I'm going to stop you there for time, but thank you so much for that insight. Cara, you were nodding along.
Cara Fitzpatrick: Well, I think that part of what he was talking about is the power of public education, the aspirational idea behind it, that it's everyone's job to pay for the education of all children. I thought that was an interesting comment.
Kai Wright: We're running out of time, but we got a number of texts about charter schools and why they would be a controversial idea. Are charter schools and school choice and vouchers, are they all part of the same conversation, or is that distinct in some way?
Cara Fitzpatrick: They bump up against each other, in some interesting ways. Charter schools started in Minnesota a year after school vouchers started in Milwaukee. In many ways, charter schools took off and became more popular than school vouchers because the idea was to provide a different type of public school, but that it would still be a public school. The idea of charters was to give families more choice within the public school system and that it might be an innovative option, that they might find some new ways of teaching kids of approaching the issue, and that it would be free from some of the bureaucratic entanglements of school districts.
One of the reasons that idea has been controversial is because, again, you're pulling students and therefore dollars away from the traditional public schools. There's this question of, at what point are charter schools maybe replacing the traditional public schools? How many is good and are they actually doing a much better job? That question has been debated since they started.
Kai Wright: Since they started, and ultimately this question of how are we going to make education accessible to everybody in an equitable way, it just seems to be one of many, but it's a core question we cannot seem to answer as a nation. We could talk about this all night, but we're going to have to leave it there. Cara Fitzpatrick is an editor at Chalkbeat, which covers education nationally. Her new book is called The Death of Public Schools: How Conservatives won the War over Education in America. Much, much to discuss. Thanks so much for this time, Cara.
Cara Fitzpatrick: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and on Instagram @noteswithkai. Mixing and theme song by Jared Paul. Matthew Mirando was our live engineer. Reporting, editing, and producing by Karen Frillman, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, David Norville, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. André Robert Lee is our executive producer, and I am Kai Wright. Thanks for listening.
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